Tulsa city councilors passed additional COVID-19-related measures at a special meeting Tuesday night, expanding the Tulsa Health Department’s oversight of public events and adding means to punish businesses that are not complying with city mandates.
The eight councilors present Tuesday night — with District 5 Councilor Cass Fahler absent — passed two ordinances covering those requirements as well as new guidelines for social distancing at bars and restaurants.
Councilors spent much of Tuesday night’s meeting discussing how to best enforce city COVID-19 mandates on businesses without putting those at the point of sale in a vulnerable position.
Councilor Lori Decter-Wright said she and others wanted to give businesses the backing to stand their ground on requiring customers to mask up and social distance.
The ordinance approved Tuesday night requires businesses to request that customers comply with masking and social distancing rules. Those not doing so, either actively or passively, may be found public nuisances by the Tulsa Health Department and subject to Tulsa Police Department enforcement.
Decter-Wright said while she is concerned about those who may become belligerent toward employees over a mask requirement, she said she doesn’t want the city to “what if” itself out of enforcing the mandate.
“I think it will empower our businesses to say, ‘I have to do this because I want to stay open,’” Decter-Wright said. “It’s going to have to come from the top, from the company CEO down to the management and training the clerks to de-escalate.
“I can really appreciate, and I know people feel like it’s unsafe. But I hope that we’re not going to go down the what-if worm hole for the 1 or 2 percent of the population that literally is just not going to cooperate.”
Those penalties against businesses, up to a $1,200 fine or 6 months in the city jail, also apply to public events and gatherings operating without or out of compliance with COVID-19 safety plans through the Health Department.
Previously, the Tulsa Health Department required a COVID-19 safety plan for a public gathering of more than 500 people at least 14 days ahead of the event. Tuesday night’s ordinance lowers that limit to 150 people, with Councilor Kara Joy McKee suggesting that the number drop further to 25 if the Health Department can keep up with event requests.
“I realize this is not a popular opinion, but I felt the need to state it that 150 is still a bit high,” McKee said. “Given the emergency situation we are in, I wish that we had a solution here with a lower number for recommendation of safety plans and enforcement.
“But this is what we have, and I hope my colleagues, if our numbers continue to climb, we come back from the holiday break to consider lowering that number a bit.”
Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart said the department is limited by how many safety plans it can review. Data show good outcomes when events follow approved safety plans, and Dart said requiring safety plans for events smaller than 150 would have “even greater success” in slowing the virus’ transmission.
But lowering that number pushes the limits of what existing Health Department resources can accomplish, Dart said.
“It’s a good point, but our ability to manage all of those plans on top of everything we’re doing now, it’s going to be a real difficulty,” Dart said. “It’ll be hard for us to manage. … We’re really engaged with our current number of 500, and I’m going to have to add staff when we lower it to 150.
“We only have a certain amount of bandwidth. Everyone here’s already doing more than one job as it is.”
Councilors did approve a grandfather clause for events in the next few days that didn’t require a safety plan before Tuesday night’s vote, though Dart said the department would do “whatever it takes” to evaluate plans submitted for those events.
Councilors also passed a local ordinance with language mirroring Gov. Kevin Stitt's recent executive order on restaurant and bar social distancing requirements.
However, the statewide order requires those businesses to close by 11 p.m., with the exception of delivery and drive-through windows. City Council Chairman Ben Kimbro said he believed the 11 p.m. rule singled out bars and restaurants, a sentiment echoed by other councilors. The state order will still be enforced in Tulsa, but the city's ordinance does not include that 11 p.m. closure requirement, so if the state order expires before the city's ordinance, the city will not impose such a restriction.
The ordinance was also further expanded to cover all "places of public accommodation," which includes many businesses now ordered to maintain at least 6 feet of separation between customers, clients or parties. Child care centers were the lone exception to that requirement.
Report non-compliance with existing city ordinances regarding COVID-19 at www.tulsa-health.org/COVIDcomplaint.